For as long as people have searched for God, they have been drawn to the beauty and wonder of nature. The wisemen followed the star, the Desert Fathers found solitude in the wilderness, and Ignatius of Loyola changed his heart and history on pilgrimage in the depths of a cave and on the heights of a saw-toothed mountain called Montserrat.
We found our way from the southern coast of Spain to the hills of Catalonia. You can see Montserrat from Barcelona, only 45 minutes away, as it stands out as a geological anomaly drawing your eye to its rugged beauty. Montserrat means “sawed or serrated mountain,” and for centuries the monastery there has been a place of religious significance drawing both the famous and the ordinary on pilgrimage.
One humble pilgrim, Íñigo López de Loyola, (Ignacio) came to Montserrat after a life changing experience. A knight in the royal court of Madrid from a noble Basque family known for his passion for both women and war, Ignacio had his privileged life shattered in the Battle of Pamplona on May 20, 1521, when a cannon ball shattered one of his legs. Just thirty years old, and bored with nothing to do during a long painful recovery, Ignacio read a book on Christ and the lives of the saints, that opened his heart and imagination to following Christ. We know him as Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).
The wound received by Ignatius in the battle of Pamplona, five hundred years ago, was a crucial moment in his path of liberation. With his leg shattered, he became a pilgrim, a wayfarer towards true freedom. He freed himself from the illusions he had built up from his family experience and in the royal court, to pursue the ideal built from the personal encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, to discover freedom, the love that leads to the surrender of one’s own life so that others may have life. (Arturo Sosa, “Walking with Ignatius”)
What’s your cannonball moment? How has your life been interrupted and taken a new way? Take a moment to journal about your life changing experience or make a 1 minute video of your story and share it.
Ignatius decided to set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk where Jesus Christ lived and experience him more deeply. On the way from Loyola to Barcelona’s port, he is drawn to Montserrat, to the Benedictine monastery founded in 1025 that continues on to this day.
From the 12th century, a wooden statue of Jesus with the Black Madonna enthroned above the basilica’s altar has drawn pilgrims to the site, including Ignatius. After praying all night, he left his sword at the altar, letting his personal ambitions go in order to serve a higher calling to love the Lord God with all his might.
It took some research and walking, but we found the sword of Ignacio at the Jesuit Church of the Sacred Heart in Barcelona encased in a niche under his statue.
Is there something like the sword that symbolizes what you are holding on to? What self-focus do you need to let go of to free you to love and know God more fully?
What do you need to leave at the altar?
Montserrat was the first stop in our Ignatian Way pilgrimage (Camino Ignacio). We were blessed to spend the night at the abbey next to the basilica at Montserrat pictured here, set in the crook of the saw-toothed mountain with gorgeous views. Early the next morning, we joined the “lauds” prayer time with the 60+ Benedictine monks who live there. They chanted so beautifully and the spirit of their communal prayer was so overwhelmingly palpable that it brought me to tears. As I have been practicing Ignation spirituality and imagination, I prayer-imagined letting go of the deep grief of my mother’s death and allow her spirit to fly free .
From Montserrat we drove a short 20 minutes to Manresa (no we didn’t walk) where Ignatius came down from the mountain and lived in a cave near the river and the church for almost a year, doing the interior soul work necessary to leave behind the life of accolade and privilege. He sat by the Cardoner river outside his cave, surrounded by the beauty of nature and began to see God in all things, a central theme of his teachings. At Manresa, Ignatius wrote the “Spiritual Exercises,” meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices to help people deepen their relationship with God.
Saint Ignatius describes his experience in a short autobiography: “he sat down for a little while with his face toward the river…while he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened; not that he saw any vision, but he understood and learned many things…with so great an enlightenment that everything seemed new to him.”
Do you have a special place in nature to enjoy the presence of God?
What new understanding have you experienced while meditating in the solitude and beauty of creation?
Amazingly, the church at Manresa that Ignacio worshipped in 500 years ago, is still an active basilica overlooking the Cardoner river. We were able to attend a daily mass and spend some time reflecting and praying as we looked out at the river that drew Ignatius more deeply into relationship with God. Ignatius emerged from the cave experience at Manresa empowered by the divine spirit of God. He is described as an “encendido” or “man on fire,” a fool for God, a man of faith. He would later establish the Jesuit order and spearhead the Catholic response to the Protestant Reform, sending missionaries around the world and establishing schools, serving the poor and adapting their vision of the Christian faith to the culture. His legacy of faith is being celebrated globally for the 500-year anniversary of his cannon ball moment and conversion.
IGNATIAN PRACTICE. Listening for God in nature and finding him in all things is a restful rhythm. Find a place in nature that you can return to daily or weekly for a time of solitude and silence. It doesn’t have to be living in a cave for a year! A green space, park, nature trail, hill, creek, or mountain…on a rock, under a tree or space you can sit and let your spirit be free. Make it true time of listening in solitude without phone or music, just nature and the Spirit of God.
PILGRIMAGE. A pilgrimage is a way of praying with your feet. You go on a pilgrimage because you now there’s something missing inside your soul, and the only way you can find it is to go to sacred places, places where God made himself known to others. In sacred places, something gets done to you that you’ve been unable to do for yourself.” Ian Cron
Have you ever made a journey that enlarged your view of God? Intentionally take a pilgrimage with others…it can be somewhere near like a beautiful church or a part of creation that leads you to worship. Or you could plan a pilgrimage to a Biblical or holy site.
Prayer of Ignatius: Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my whole will, all that I have and all that I possess. You gave it all to me, Lord; I give it all back to you. Do with it as you will, according to your good pleasure. Give me your love and your grace; for with this I have all that I need.